Can you work and still receive Social Security disability or Supplemental Security Income (SSI) benefits?
The answer is a qualified “yes.”
Social Security wants people to try to go back to work.
However, the regulations surrounding keeping your benefits while you try to go back to work make it tricky.
This is stuff you have to know to (hopefully) keep you out of trouble!
Are you engaged in a Substantial Gainful Activity?
Generally speaking, the test of disability is whether you can perform a substantial gainful activity (SGA)? That is, are your monthly gross earnings (income before taxes and deduction) equal to, or greater than the Substantial Gainful Activity amounts set by Social Security.
In 2016, if you are making at least $1,130 per month, before taxes, your work is a substantial gainful activity.
So, if I my gross income is the SGA amount, or more, I have a problem,
But, if my monthly gross income is less than SGA, Social Security will leave me alone?
That is generally correct and it is a good rule of thumb.
However, that forces a lot of people to stop working when they could still do something! So, there are exceptions to allow you to still get Social Security disability benefits even if you are earning more than SGA. Also, if you are receiving Supplemental Security Income (SSI), you can earn a bit more than the SGA amount and still receive your SSI benefits. However, that is an article in itself.
If you earn more than the SGA amount:
Here are the exceptions to allow your benefits to continue even if you earn more than the substantial gainful activity amount:
1) Unsuccessful Work Attempt (UWA)
Did the work last for less than 6 months? If yes, the work may qualify as an unsuccessful work attempt or UWA. This is the most common way to continue benefits if you return to work and earn more than the SGA amount.
Simply put, if you work at or above the SGA level for up to six months but have to stop because of your disability, as opposed to being laid off, or quitting, the work may be an unsuccessful work attempt.
Note: The unsuccessful work attempt exception applies to work performed BEFORE you are found disabled.
2) Impairment Related Work Expenses (IRWE)
If your work is performed at a SGA level, you may be able to reduce the income SSA considers through Impairment Related Work Expenses (IRWEs). Any medically necessary expenses related to your impairment which are necessary to allow you to work may be deducted from your gross income as an IRWE.
Here’s an example: You have a disabling seizure disorder. However, due to a new medication, your seizure disorder is controlled enough to allow you to go back to work. Your actual out-of-pocket costs for medications, doctors visits, and blood tests may all be IRWEs and might reduce your income below SGA levels and allow your benefits to continue.
A subsidy is any compensation over the fair value of your work. This often happens if you work for a family member or if you work through an agency like Goodwill.
If you are paid for a 40 hour week but you only work 25 hours, you have a 15 hour subsidy. Another possibility is if the value of your work is $8.00 an hour, but you are paid $10.00 an hour (a $2.00 an hour subsidy).
If you subtract the subsidy, and your gross income is below the SGA amount, you might still be able to keep your Social Security benefits.
4) Trial Work Period
If you are receiving Disability Insurance (not SSI), Social Security allows you a Trial Work Period: you can go back to work, and earn even more than the SGA amount, and still be considered disabled, for 9 months.
Even if you earn LESS THAN the SGA amount, WATCH OUT
Any work may create the impression that an individual is not really disabled. That is the greatest risk of going back to work.
I have heard too many stories of Social Security stopping benefits and even claiming an overpayment, because they thought a person who had gone back to work was never disabled in the first place, or that their disability stopped months or years ago.
Performing a job at a non-SGA level, may suggest the ability to perform other work at a SGA level.
An extreme example of this is working a part-time construction or labor job.
- You may be limited to only being able to do this work part-time.
- Your earnings may be less than the SGA amount.
- BUT, if you can do part-time construction, does that mean you may be able to do full time (SGA) work at an easier job, for example as an information clerk?
Lets get real here: if there is a less demanding full-time SGA job that you can perform, your disability benefits will be questioned sooner or later and you may be assessed an overpayment.
Are you structuring your work to be less than the SGA amount?
If you are keeping your hours below a certain amount just to earn less than the SGA amount, that’s structuring your earnings, and you are probably committing fraud.
Your benefits will probably be stopped, and you are looking at an overpayment and will probably have to repay Social Security. However, things can get much worse: Social Security may also refer your case to the Attorney Generals office for federal prosecution.
Do not game the system! It is not worth it.